Opinion: From Iraq to fighting COVID-19 at home

032321 Atlanta: Some of the 222 U.S. Army troops gear up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as operations get under way for the facility to become the largest Community Vaccination Center in the southeast serving an average of 42,000 citizens a week on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Atlanta. There are 202 soldiers from Fort Stewart and twenty U.S. Army medical specialists that will operate some of the vaccination areas located inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

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032321 Atlanta: Some of the 222 U.S. Army troops gear up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as operations get under way for the facility to become the largest Community Vaccination Center in the southeast serving an average of 42,000 citizens a week on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Atlanta. There are 202 soldiers from Fort Stewart and twenty U.S. Army medical specialists that will operate some of the vaccination areas located inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

While I am lucky to have a job I enjoy, I know too many veterans who are currently out of work. It makes me shudder, thinking of all the former medics who could have put their training to good use in all the understaffed hospitals and clinics when the virus was surging.

Since the pandemic began, we’ve gotten used to hearing leaders across the world say we need to galvanize an “army” to fight the COVID-19 virus.

As a former Army combat medic, who has completed four deployments between Iraq and Afghanistan and a humanitarian mission in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, here’s what I’d tell them if I could: You already have an army of healthcare workers and we’re ready to go. We need veterans to help America recover from the pandemic and get us back on our feet.

While I am lucky to have a job I enjoy, I know too many veterans who are currently out of work. Most people don’t realize that many members of the military have a hard time landing a good civilian job when they finish their service because our experiences and extensive training aren’t fully understood by employers.

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Timothy Hobbs

Credit: contributed

Timothy Hobbs

Credit: contributed

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Timothy Hobbs

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Bureaucratic red tape keeps our qualifications from meeting basic requirements. For example, as a medic, I had to obtain and maintain a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT, certification. However, if I wanted to get out of the military, I would not be able to staff an ambulance until I challenged the state test and passed.

In fact, according to the Transitioning Veterans Metrics Initiative, over 60% of veterans nationwide identify as underemployed. In addition, half of former medics who want to continue their medical service cannot find jobs in the U.S. healthcare industry due to not having the proper certifications.

I was just 19 years old the first time I treated a trauma patient. That experience defined me and how I performed patient care for the rest of my career.

As a kid, I looked up to veterans as heroes and always knew I’d follow in my family’s footsteps and join the military in some capacity. In basic training, my drill sergeant raved about being a medic and so I made the choice to become one too.

There is an immense amount of pressure placed on those of us who choose this path. By the time I was 23, I was a light infantry company senior medic responsible for training my three junior medics and ensuring the health of more than 200 people.

My job was hard but simple: Make sure everyone returned home.

To prepare to be a medic we train, we train -- and then we train some more! It is fast and furious and way more extensive than what is required for most healthcare roles outside the military. It is ingrained in us to overprepare for the worst-case scenario.

The goal is to be ready enough for any real-life trauma situations so that all that training will just naturally kick in. Medic school involves much more than being trained to be an EMT, we have to be trained to be military medics as well. This involves repetitive tourniquet drills, remembering the tenets of Tactical Combat Casualty Care, remembering a variety of acronyms to help you remember not to miss steps, and so on.

In our career, many of us will obtain additional certifications such as emergency medical technician-paramedic, tactical paramedic, advanced cardiac life support, or pediatric advanced life support, to name a few. In fact, the price tag that our country invests in us for all that preparation is more than $100,000 per medic and hospital corpsman.

Last year, while I was on my last deployment in Iraq, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. As we are trained to do, we shifted gears to confront our new enemy.

I was on the front lines of this battle serving as the emergency room manager for a hospital and supporting the coalition forces between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. We all worked together – we overprepared, reacted quickly, and worked hard to contain the spread of the disease.

As our country begins the long recovery process, I’ve completed my overseas tours of duty and am adjusting to civilian life. Like me, more than 200,000 transitioning service members become our newest veterans each year — and more than 92% of vets state they want to continue serving in their communities after military service.

Yet this past year, thousands of veterans remained out of work and underutilized when their country needed them the most. Red tape bureaucracy keeps them from getting the jobs in the industries they are trained for.

It makes me shudder, thinking of all the former medics who could have put their training to good use in all the understaffed hospitals and clinics when the virus was surging. Now, they could be utilized to vaccinate every American, serve as lab technicians administering tests, or assist in hospitals that are still under siege by the disease.

We need to remove bureaucratic barriers to give veterans a chance to be a part of America’s recovery from the pandemic. Veteran service organizations that are working hard to help veterans find work deserve more of our support.

May is designated as Military Appreciation Month -- the ideal time to not just thank a veteran for their service but allow us to keep serving this country in the ways we are uniquely trained -- and overprepared -- to do.

Timothy Hobbs Jr., of Columbus, retired as a Sergeant First Class after 20 years’ service in the U.S. Army. He is currently a senior healthcare analyst at Koniag Government Services. He was placed into a civilian job through the Call of Duty Endowment.